Author: Anthony Butler
Stardate 55178.3. The Explorer is laid over at Dominion Outpost 417 getting the engine room remodeled. During this layover time, we’ve all been given the opportunity to explore the Dominion station and get to know our new…well, I guess you could call them allies. Anyway, none of us have left the ship. Call us anti-social, but…
“I’m a little busy now,” Captain Baxter called out.
“Captain,” came the voice of Weyoun, the Vorta clone assigned to the Explorer. “It is a matter of some urgency.”
“So is what I’m doing now.”
“Please, Captain, I implore you to give me a moment of your time.”
Baxter sighed. “Hold on a sec.” He looked down over his wife, Kelly Peterman, who was bent over the toilet in the couple’s bathroom. “Honey, are you going to be okay?”
Peterman responded by gagging once more into the toilet as Baxter gently held her hair back.
“Come on, now, baby…let’s get you something to drink.” Baxter lifted Peterman up and braced her arm around his shoulder and carried her over to the bed. “There. Lie down. I’ll get you something bubbly.”
“Where’s my bucket?”
“I’ll grab you a fresh one out of the replicator. The other one…” Baxter grimaced. “Had to be destroyed.”
Baxter walked out into his living room and turned toward the front door. “Enter.”
The doors opened to reveal the short Weyoun, in his customary Autumn-toned Vorta getup, staring placidly at Baxter with his twinkling blue eyes.
“Am I interrupting something, Captain?” he asked.
“That was sort of what I was trying to tell you,” Baxter said, wincing as he heard Peterman hacking in the bedroom. “So much for my Rigellian wool comforter.” He looked at Weyoun. “Come on in.”
Weyoun drifted in, allowing the doors to Baxter’s cabin to swing shut behind him. “Your wife is enduring human pregnancy symptoms?”
“Yes,” Baxter said, cocking his head quizzically. “How did you know?”
“During the war, all Vorta field supervisors were educated in humanoid physiology. Specifically the biological quirks of major alpha quadrant races. Humans, Cardassians, Klingons…”
“This is definitely something of a ‘quirk,’” Baxter said, calling up a ginger ale on the replicator. “Something for you?”
Weyoun winced as he heard Peterman retch in the other room. “Not necessary. I came to make a request of you. It will not take much time.”
Baxter grabbed the ginger ale and nodded. “Okay. Shoot.”
“I assure you Captain, I come in peace.”
Baxter sighed. “I mean tell me what you want.”
“Plato,” Weyoun said simply.
Baxter sagged down into the chair at his desk. “Plato. Why didn’t I see that one coming?”
“He needs to be with the Founders, if only for a short time, Captain. I’m sure you understand.”
“We already went through all this last year, Weyoun. Plato visited the Founders, and had a lovely time.”
“They intend that to be somewhat of a regular occurrence now that the Explorer is in the Gamma Quadrant.”
“They do, do they?” Baxter mulled that over. “It’s no coincidence the Explorer was picked for this assignment, is it?”
“No, it is not. The Dominion requested the Explorer by name. After all, not every Federation starship has a demi-god aboard.”
“Well, can I interest you in the full-fledged god we have serving drinks down in the lounge?”
“I have met Mister Mirk. He is an interesting individual. He is not, however, a Founder.”
Baxter leaned back in his chair, resting his hands on his knees. “So you’re telling me the Founders want visitation.”
“Well, luckily I’m not the one who has to make this decision. Plato has a mom. Janice Browning. You’ll have to ask her, and I will support whatever she decides one hundred percent.”
“As it should be,” Weyoun said, bowing slightly. “I will ask Ms. Browning. I think she will see this for what it is. An opportunity to strengthen bonds between the Dominion and the Federation.” With that, Weyoun backed out the door.
“Isn’t that why we got into a war with you in the first place?” Baxter said to no one. Peterman replied by hacking in the next room.
“THE BUCKET, HONEY!”
“What do you mean you don’t eat?” Doctor Janice Browning asked, scratching her head as she stood next to Weyoun’s table in Space Tastes, holding a padd poised ready to take his order.
“Just that. I do not consume food, as a rule, although my digestive system is capable of processing anything I may happen to eat. I take regular nutrient and protein injections, and that is all that I need to sustain myself.”
“Processing anything, huh,” Browning said thoughtfully. “I may have finally found someone who can eat my ten-alarm chili.”
“Ten…alarm?” Weyoun asked politely.
“I’ll go get some for you. It’s still breakfast time, but it’s not like you care, right?” she giggled and headed back to the kitchen before Weyoun could stop her.
She returned with a bubbling cauldron of maroon mush with chunks of meat and bean mixed in. Weyoun thanked the Founders he had limited olfactory senses.
“Dig in!” Browning said joyfully, sitting down across from Weyoun. “Tell me how you like it.”
Weyoun timidly lifted the spoon up to his mouth and tasted. He let it sit there a long moment, then swallowed. He looked at Browning. “I taste nothing.”
“Nothing?” Browning blinked. “That recipe once put Lieutenant Ford into a coma!”
“My sense of taste is rather limited.” Weyoun pushed the bowl aside and leaned over, steepling his fingers. “I did not come here to eat, however. I came to talk to you.”
“About getting some taste buds? I’ll see what I can do…”
“No, no…” Weyoun shook his head. “I bring a message from the Founders.”
“Uh-oh.” Browning immediately saw where this was going.
“They wish to visit with Plato on a regular basis during the Explorer’s mission in the Gamma Quadrant, beginning immediately.”
“Once every two to three Federation weeks will suffice. They simply wish to link with him. To learn from him. To teach him, if you will. It’s an exciting opportunity for peace between our peoples.”
Browning nodded. “Hmm. Well, what if I don’t want to?”
“You would be passing up an essential diplomatic opportunity.”
Essential. Browning didn’t like the sound of that. “Have you talked to Captain Baxter?”
“He deferred to your judgment.”
“That was nice of him.” Browning rubbed her chin. “I have no objections, on two conditions.”
“Plato has to want to go.”
“By all means.”
“And I want to go along.”
Weyoun shifted in his chair. “I will have to discuss that with the Founders.”
“It’s me and Plato or nothing at all. You tell them that, okay? I ate one of them before and I’m not above eating another one if he gives me any trouble, you got that?”
Weyoun slid back a bit in his chair. Doctor Browning was easily the kindest, most warm-hearted and decent member of the Explorer crew he had met so far in his short time aboard that vessel, but when her child’s safety was brought into question, she became a dangerous person indeed. Weyoun filed that aspect of the human condition away for further study.
“Allow me to talk to Plato. Then I will confer with the Founders.”
Browning stood up. “Okeydoke. It should be snack time in his class. Oooh! That reminds me. I was supposed to bring something for that.” Browning eyed the almost full cauldron of chili. “Hmm…”
Shortly thereafter, Weyoun stumbled wearily out of the room of screaming, shrieking children, leaning back against the bulkhead opposite the classroom door.
“That was horrific,” he said flatly.
Browning followed after, holding Plato’s hand.
“Thank goodness I have a limited sense of taste,” Plato said with a soft giggle amidst the melee heard from within the classroom.
“Um…yes…that was just what your…erm, Uncle Weyoun was saying,” Browning said, scooting Plato over to Weyoun. “You remember him, don’t you Plato?”
“Yeah. We saw him in the mall last week,” Plato observed. He reached out to shake Weyoun’s hand. “Hey, guy!”
Weyoun gingerly took Plato’s hand, which immediately detached in his own hand.
“By the Founders!” Weyoun exclaimed.
“Take that hand back, mister!” Browning scolded Plato. “He’s been doing that a lot lately,” she added apologetically as Plato retrieved his hand from Weyoun and attached it back at the wrist.
“It’s just a little trick,” Plato said, staring at the floor.
“Well, you are a very special child,” Weyoun said. “That’s why your other parents want to see you. To get to know you and all the special things that make you unique.”
“What other parents?” Plato asked, staring at Browning. “She’s my Mom. Who else is there?”
Browning knelt by Plato. “Well…you remember when we went to the lake of changelings…and you swam in there and could hear their thoughts?”
“Yeah. That was pretty cool.”
“Well, they’re sort of all your…um…Dad.”
Weyoun cleared his throat. “I’m not sure that’s accurate.”
“Close enough,” Browning said quickly, and looked at Plato. “Do you want to see them again, Plato? They…” she sighed. “They want to see you.”
“Sure,” Plato said, shrugging. “Can I go back in there and play?”
“Sure, but…” Browning’s eyes followed Doctor Holly Wilcox as she rushed into the classroom with a small case that she guessed was an oral burn kit. “You might want to wait a moment, though.”
The next morning, Lt. Commander Megan Hartley circled the runabout Chicamacomico, giving it a final checkover as Weyoun, Browning, Plato and some luggage waited patiently beside the entrance door. Weyoun had conferred with the Founders, and they’d agreed to let Browning along. In the interest of diplomacy, Browning had therefore made up a special batch of cookies for the Founders. Weyoun observed she still didn’t quite get the “we don’t eat” thing.
Hartley stared at some readings on her tricorder, then closed it and pocketed it. “Good news, Doc. Repairs are complete. We can go ahead and send you off on this one, since the Passaic and the Irawadi are being retro-fitted by the science division right now.”
“Is it space-worthy?” Browning asked worriedly.
“Absolutely,” Hartley said assuringly. “It took a nasty spill when the Jem’Hadar shot down the Captain and his parents a couple months ago, but we’ve finally got it back in once piece.”
She stepped forward, looking at Browning with narrowed eyes. “See that it does not crash again. Got it?”
“Yes, of course,” Browning said. “I understand completely.” She looked at Weyoun. “Well, that just about–”
“Hold on just one second. None of you are cleared to fly that thing!”
Browning sighed, recognizing the voice immediately. “Oh no.”
Commander Christopher Richards strolled into the shuttlebay. “So…you were just going to leave me with a memo, that’s it?” he asked.
“Can we do this some other time?” Browning said, gesturing for Weyoun and Plato to go ahead into the runabout.
“No, we can’t,” Richards said, glancing at Hartley. “I believe you have an engine room refit to get back to.”
“Since when did you get a spine?” Hartley snapped.
“Go,” Richards said, and Hartley shrugged, packing her engineering kit and heading out of the room.
“Fine by me,” she muttered.
Richards stared at Browning as the rear door into the Chicamacomico irises shut. “You wanted to do this by yourself?” he asked.
“That was the idea, Christopher.”
“Because you don’t want to get caught in a custody battle between me and the Founders. It’s nothing you need to worry about.”
“It certainly is something I need to worry about. If it concerns you and Plato, it concerns me.”
“Plato doesn’t even enter into it and you know it.”
“Sure he does.”
“Name one time you and Plato had a conversation in the three months we’ve been back together.”
“Name one time the two of you did ANYTHING together.”
“Christopher…” Browning took Richards’s hands. “I don’t want you to step in feeling you have to be his Dad. I know it’s awkward.”
Richards frowned. “It’s not awkward for Andy.”
“That’s because his role hasn’t changed. Yours has.” She pulled Richards closer. “You’re back in my life. That’s an adjustment period for all of us. Neither of us wanted to go back to sharing quarters again and being the virtually married couple we were. We’re casual. Casual doesn’t mean you have to be a big part of my son’s life.” Browning diverted her eyes. “At least not yet anyway.”
Richards put his hands gently on Browning’s arms. “All the more reason I want to be involved in this visit with the Founders. Please, Janice. I want to spend time with you…I want to spend time with Plato. This is the perfect opportunity to…to rebuild.”
Browning sighed and stared at the shuttlebay ceiling. “You realize we’re running the risk of doing this too fast.”
“Nonsense. We know each other implicitly. There’s no such thing as too fast.”
“We’ll see about that,” Browning sighed as she followed Richards into the runabout.
“Another satisfied customer,” Hartley said lightly as she walked past the sounds of construction and bulkheads being replaced in the burned out engine room of the Explorer. She stepped over Ensign Lexxin who was busily sawing through a power conduit and shouldered past Ensigns Stuart and Milanovich as they prepared the warp core to be lowered out of the emergency hatch at the bottom of th ship.
During a previous mission, Hartley had to evacuate the engine room when power conduits exploded and the warp core needed to be shut down. Now those conduits and a few bulkheads, not to mention seventeen different EPS power transfer nodes, had to be yanked out and replaced with new components. Then there were new control surfaces to be added, new paneling. The simple chore of having the Explorer airlift a building out of a planet’s atmosphere, then generating an inverse subspace field around it, was more than enough to trash the engine room and ruin Lieutenant Commander Hartley’s month.
The worst part would be getting the warp core out and getting it back in. That was always a hassle. She recalled having to do just that on the Aerostar…of course in that case the warp core exploded and they had to put a new one in, which was even more of a hassle. But it wasn’t exactly a simple procedure. Since her promotion to chief engineer two months prior, she’d come to realize that the job had its share of minor annoying tasks to fulfil. She didn’t remember it being so hectic during her short stint as Chief Engineer two years ago. Then again, life always seemed more enjoyable in retrospect.
Hartley thought of just that as she keyed open the door to her office and found Lt. Commander Nell Vansen sitting at her desk.
Specifically, Hartley was thinking how Commander Conway wasn’t really that bad a guy.
“What can I do for you,” Hartley said, folding her arms.
Vansen leaned forward at Hartley’s desk, clasping her hands atop the desk. “I’m sorry if it bothers you that I’m in your office, Lieutenant Commander.”
“Not at all, Lieutenant Commander.” Hartley sat down across from Vansen. “What can I do for you?”
“I was just going over some of your staffing reports.” Vansen held up a padd and paged through it.
“Ahh.” Hartley raised an eyebrow. “I hope you found everything to be in order.”
“Your record-keeping is fine,” Vansen said, studying Hartley like a mountain cat eying a bald eagle. “But it looks like you give your people very limited responsibilities. More than half the time you do the work yourself. Not very efficient.”
“I’m a hands-on kind of person.”
“There’s a difference between being ‘hands on,’ as you put it, and being an exclusive leader.”
Hartley wrinkled her nose. “What do you mean ‘exclusive?’”
“You do too much by yourself. You don’t share power with the people who work under you. It’s inefficient, and dangerous. What if you’re absent and there’s an emergency? Are any of your subordinates qualified to run this engine room without you? I think not.”
Hartley felt a slow, tall flame burning direcly under her. She gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to reach across the desk and wring Vansen’s neck. “Interesting observations, Lieutenant Commander Vansen.”
“They’re not just observations. There’s a point to this. You need to change.”
“Hmm.” Hartley dug her fingernails into the arms of her chair. “I see. And who says?”
“I see where you’re coming from,” Hartley said slowly.
Vansen smiled. “Good. Then I guess there isn’t much more to–”
“And I also see where you’re going.” Hartley calmly stood and circled her desk, grabbed Vansen by the back of her uniform and dragged her out of her office, past her working crewmembers. “OUT of my engine room!”
She shoved Vansen up against a bulkhead and looked at Ensign Stuart. “Ryan…will you kindly take Lieutenant Commander Vansen out of Engineering?”
Vansen stared aghast at Hartley, speechless.
“How’s that for delegation, bitch?” Hartley tossed over her shoulder as she went back into the office. Vansen heard the electronic CLINK of the door locking.
“Right this way, ma’am,” Stuart said sheepishly, putting his hand on Vansen’s arm.
“This won’t stand,” Vansen muttered, wrenching free of Stuart and stomping out of engineering. “I’ll be back!”
“Bring back-up,” Stuart called out helpfully.
The ride aboard the Chicamacomico was quiet for some time. Richards was at the foreward controls, since he was really the only person aboard who was qualified to man a runabout.
“Will I need water wings?” Plato asked, sitting in Browning’s lap, staring out the viewport as she plunked aimlessly at the science station controls.
“Most certainly not,” Weyoun said quickly before Browning could answer.
“It’ll be just like you remember it, Plato,” Browning said reassuringly, running her fingers through Plato’s hair. “Do you want to play video domjat?”
“I want to see the inertial guidance sensors,” Plato replied.
“He is quite intelligent,” Weyoun said.
“Are we going to crash?” Plato asked Browning.
“Of course not, silly,” Browning said. “What would make you think that?”
“Cause the last time I was on a runabout, we crashed.”
Richards pivoted in his chair. “Plato, the Explorer sends out runabouts on a regular basis. They don’t necessarily crash every time.”
“Shut up and drive, Richie.”
Richards blinked. “What did he call me?”
“It’s a term of endearment,” Browning said, nudging Plato’s shoulder. “Why don’t you just pilot the ship, hon.”
Richards sighed and turned in his chair, looking at the controls. His eyes immediately went wide. “Oh my God!”
“You’re probably not talking about the Founders, are you,” Weyoun said dully.
“No,” Richards said, slamming a hand on the helm controls. The Chicamacomico pitched wildly, sending the starscape outside spinning and making everyone’s stomachs churn.
Browning gripped her panel with one hand and slung the other arm around Plato. “Christopher, what’s wrong?”
“A Jem’Hadar warship just entered the system and immediately locked weapons on us. I’m taking us out of warp so we can try to outmaneuver them.” Richards’s hands worked madly over the helm controls.
Weyoun staggered over to the front of the cockpit. “Mister Richards, there is a treaty between the Dominion and the Federation. I am certain that the vessel coming toward us has no malicious intent!”
Just then, through the viewport window, Weyoun watched the Jem’Hadar warship blast away. Richards dodged one bolt of energy only to slam the Chicamacomico directly into another one.
“Main guidance system offline. Switching to backups. Shields down to thirty percent,” the computer trilled annoyingly.
“Is there anything I can do, Christopher?” Browning asked as Plato struggled in her grip.
“Hail them,” Richards said, gripping the helm with both hands, trying to keep the Chicamacomico out of the way of the warship’s blasts. “See if Weyoun can reason with them.”
“Yes. I’ll get to the bottom of this,” Weyoun said sternly.
Browning punched a button and a lanky, wrinkly faced being in purple robes, with a pointy mouth, appeared on the viewscreen.
“He’s not Jem’Hadar,” Richards observed.
“No,” Weyoun said, aghast. “He’s Karemma.”
“This is Enforcer Hanok of the Submission. You will drop your shields immediately and let us take your vessel into our hangar.”
“‘Submission’?” Weyoun snapped. “What is that?”
“A group of races who were kicked around by the Dominion for tens, and in some cases, hundreds of years. We detected a Vorta lifesign and one that appears to be Changeling. Submit to us, or you will be destroyed.”
“Mister Hanok,” Richards said. “This is a Federation ship. Your people have a treaty with the Federation, don’t they?
“This is not the Federation’s concern. We just want the Vorta and the Changeling.”
“The ‘changeling’ is my son!” Browning snapped. “And you can’t have him!”
“Son?” Hanok looked puzzled. “How can that be?”
“It’s a long story,” said Richards. “Regardless, both beings are under Federation protection. The Federation has a treaty with the Dominion, so…”
“Well they also have a treaty with the Karemma,” Hanok replied quickly.
“I knew all these alliances would come back to bite us at some point,” Richards muttered. He stared at Hanok. “Very well. We’ll send over the Vorta and the changeling if you promise to let us go.”
“Of course,” Hanok said, interlacing his fingers.
“WHAT?” Browning cried, jumping forward to where Richards was sitting. “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING CHRISTOPHER?!”
Richards glanced at Browning and winked, a gesture that immediately put her at ease. He looked back at Hanok. “Lower your shields, Enforcer. I’ll send our people over.”
“Of course.” Hanok glanced to his left and Richards grinned as he watched the Submission warship’s shields go down. “Now,” said Hanok. “Lower your shields and commence beaming.”
“Here you go!” Richards said, stabbing the firing control, sending phaser blasts from both Chicamacomico’s barrels. The warship pitched wildly with the first shot then spun backward with the next and a giant gash blew into her hull with the following.
Richards studied his controls. “Their engines are fragged.” He pivoted the Chicamacomico around. “I’ll just move us to a safe…”
Suddenly blasts from the Submission warship pounded the Chicamacomico. What was left of her shields were decimated and one warp nacelle blew up entirely, sending the tiny runabout spinning out of control.
“You disabled their engines but left their weapons fully intact!” Weyoun shrieked.
“Apparently!” Richards cried.
“We’re going to crash again!” Plato yipped.
“We are NOT!” Browning snapped.
“Hold on!” Richards fought with the Chicamacomico’s impulse engines, pulling the ship out of its spin just in time to avoid colliding with an asteroid. Once he righted the ship he took stock of damage. “We’re out of weapons range of the Submission ship, but they knocked out our main and backup power distribution nodes.”
“Meaning?” asked Browning.
“Meaning, we are about to lose main power, which means shields, weapons AND life support!”
“Then perhaps it would be prudent to find a place to land,” Weyoun suggested.
“I’m scanning for class-M planets. There’s one in this system,” Browning said. “I’m routing the coordinates to you.”
“Got ‘em!” Richards said. He dumped what power remained into the engines and sent the Chicamacomico diving toward the class-M planet.
Black space gave way to clouds as the runabout dove into the planet’s atmosphere.
Browning gripped Richards’s shoulder as the runabout dove toward the planet’s surface and he concentrated all his energies on making the dive less steep.
“You know, Plato really must be bad luck on runabouts,” Browning said thoughtfully.
“What do you mean?” Richards asked.
“Well, think about it. This time. His class field trip with the Captain, Commander Conway and Tyra Shar, and then when he was born.”
“I forgot about that time.”
“I sure didn’t.”
Richards shoved Browning down into the seat next to him. Plato stood between them, and instinctively, Richards pulled Plato into his lap and wrapped both arms around him as he slapped the controls and heard Weyoun’s panicked breathing behind him.
Browning reached out and locked hands with Plato and Richards as the Chicamacomico glided toward and embankment of trees and nosed down, ripping through them like a knife through broccoli.
The doors to Baxter’s quarters slid open, leaving Lt. Commander Vansen face to face with Counselor Peterman.
“What do you want?” Peterman said testily.
“I want to see the Captain.”
“He’s busy right now.”
Peterman folded her arms. “Official ship’s business.”
Vansen poked her head past Peterman and scanned the quarters. “I hear water running.”
“Don’t be silly,” Peterman scoffed.
Vansen shoved Peterman aside and marched into Baxter’s quarters to see steam pouring out of the bathroom.
“Come on in, baby, the water’s hot and bubbly, just like you like…”
Baxter, wearing nothing but a rubber ducky innertube, came face to face with Vansen. There was just enough steam to obscure his…unmentionables.
“Commander…what the hell are you doing here?” Baxter snapped.
“You are ON DUTY, Captain!” Vansen said.
“Am not,” Baxter snapped back.
“If you kill someone who breaks into your quarters, it’s self defense, right?” Peterman called out from behind Vansen.
“Did you realize Commander Richards left the ship?”
“He did?” Baxter asked. “Good for him.”
“He’s the First Officer, and he left without letting either of us know.”
“I’m sure he had an important reason.”
“He went to see the Founders with that Browning woman.”
“That ‘Browning woman’ is one of my friends,” Baxter said, tossing a towel around his waist. The steam was beginning to clear up since cold air was coming in from the doorway Vansen was standing in.
“Regardless, he took time off without filing for it. There’s protocol for that, you know!”
“There is?” Baxter rubbed his chin. “Funny. I hadn’t heard that.”
“Starfleet has rules, and you will follow them, Captain, whether you like it or not. That goes for your crew, too.”
“I take it this isn’t all about Richards.”
“Well, if you must know, your Chief Engineer attacked me this morning.”
“Really.” Baxter tried not to smile.
“Could you two do this after the Captain and I have our bath?” Peterman interjected.
“Forget about it. I’ll handle this myself.” Vansen turned on a heel and stormed out of Baxter’s quarters.
“You are in charge of personnel, after all!” Baxter called after her.
“Bitch,” Peterman said.
“There now, honey, don’t get all worked up,” Baxter said, leading Peterman over to the tub. “Let’s get you out of that housecoat and into the bubbles so we can massage those aching feet.”
“My feet aren’t aching.”
“Then I’ll find something else to massage.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“This one is alive.”
Richards opened his eyes tentatively and immediately let out a high-pitched shriek.
“He is alive and in a state of extreme discomfiture,” another voice said.
The voices belonged to what Richards could only describe as full-fledged Jem’Hadar.
Grey-skinned, spikey-faced and scaly, and peering over at him with extreme interest.
“Don’t kill me!” Richards cried.
“They’re going to do no such thing,” Browning’s voice called out from somewhere beyond the smoky cockpit of the Chicamacomico. “They’re actually quite nice.”
Richards glanced around to see that he was prostrate on the deck of the runabout cockpit. Smoke rose from ruined panels, light streamed in from a smashed foreward viewport, and four Jem’Hadar huddled over him as if he were a science experiment.
“There, now, let’s get you to your feet, friend,” one of the Jem’Hadar said, helping Richards up
Richards staggered out of the Chicamacomico’s side exit to find Browning, Plato, and Weyoun standing in a forest clearing, surveying the damage.
“Well, you know what they say about ‘any landing you can walk away from,’” Browning said lightly.
“I do not,” Weyoun said.
“Let’s play Pee in the Woods!” Plato cried out.
“You just did that five minutes ago,” Browning chided.
Richards rubbed his head, looking at the smashed up and scorched hull of the Chicamacomico. Hartley would be pissed. He then glanced around at his Jem’Hadar “rescuers,” who were gathered in a circle around him and the others.
They were all wearing beige worksuits, but otherwise looked identical to the Jem’Hadar he was familiar with.
“Welcome to Jem’Hada,” the Jem’Hadar who’d helped him up said. “I’m First Gaff’igan. These are my comrades, Second Bana’naram and Third Bel’bivdevo.”
“How pleasing it is to see you!” Weyoun said, climbing out from between Browning and Richards to face the Jem’Hadar. “I knew this project was underway but I didn’t realize it was in this system. How fortuitous!”
“I don’t understand,” Browning said.
“After the war,” Weyoun said, quite pleasantly, “the Dominion saw fit to try to wean a certain portion of the Jem’Hadar population away from combat and turn them toward more productive ventures. This planet has been established so that they might form a functioning society and be true, equal members of the Dominion.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Richards said suspiciously, looking around at the Jem’Hadar. They nodded back at him.
“I see you have a Founder with you,” Gaff’igan said to Weyoun.
“Half-Founder, actually,” Weyoun said. “We were attacked by some nasty pirates claiming to be something called the ‘Submission.’”
“Yes. We know of them,” Bana’naram said gravely. “They are fierce warriors.”
“But no match for you guys, right?” Browning said, holding Plato to keep him from bolting off into the woods.
“On the contrary, they have caused us many problems. Initially, they landed in a Karemma freighter offering to open trade negotiations with our planet. We accepted, and as we were signing the paperwork, they bombed several of our buildings and took off with our warship.”
“That explains that,” Weyoun said.
“We apologize for all the trouble we’ve caused you,” Bel’bivdevo said. “Perhaps we can make it up to you.”
“You can make it up to us by allowing us to use your comm system so we can get a distress call back to our ship, since ours has been blown up by the Submission,” Richards replied.
“I’m afraid that’s quite impossible,” said Gaff’igan. “They destroyed our communications building in their initial attack.”
“That would explain why we haven’t been kept apprised of your progress,” Weyoun said. He looked at Richards and Browning with a forced smile. “Perhaps the Dominion should have been monitoring this project more closely. With such a vast empire, it is quite difficult keeping track of every little thing.”
“Indeed,” grunted Gaff’igan.
“Well, the long-range comm system on the Chicamacomico is shot, leaving only ship-to-ship,” Richards sighed. “Maybe you guys have some tools I could borrow to try fixing it. That would help us get rescued and allow you guys to call for backup.”
“Jem’Hadar do not ‘call for backup,’” Gaff’igan said testily.
“So you’re going to fight the Submission?” asked Browning.
“Well, no,” said Bana’naram. “That goes against our nature. We’re really not sure what to do now that we’re no longer warriors. We tried diplomacy, and it didn’t work.”
“Sounds like you’re giving up too easily,” said Richards. “Don’t you have some kind of saying. ‘Victory is life,’ or something?”
“Not anymore,” said Gaff’igan. “We have a new saying now.”
“And that is…?” Richards asked cautiously.
Gaff’igan grinned. “‘Victory is life lived to the fullest.’” Weyoun smiled and mouthed the words along with him, looking quite proud of this new breed of Jem’Hadar.
“They are scaring me more than the warlike Jem’Hadar, Christopher,” Browning whispered to Richards.
Richards looked at Gaff’igan. “Let’s go ahead and try to scrounge up some tools so we can let you guys get, uh, back to business.”
Gaff’igan nodded and led the group down a forest trail, leaving the smouldering Chicamacomico behind.
“They seem nice,” Plato observed.
“Would you like to stop for lunch on the way into town?” one of the Jem’Hadar called back to Browning and Richards as Weyoun kept step beside them.
“No,” Richards replied.
“Yes, that sounds great!” Browning said, elbowing Richards in the side.
“This is not a field trip,” Richards snapped at Browning.
“Tell him that,” Browning giggled as Plato skipped ahead along the trail and held the hands of one of the Jem’Hadar.
Richards covered his face. “This is all just too much.”
“What do you mean it’ll be replicated!” Lt. Commander Hartley snapped. “This is Space Tastes. Everything is cooked FRESH.”
Imhala, Browning’s Yynsian waitress, stared back at Hartley with a face of vile contempt.
“Everything is cooked fresh when the cook is here. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s not here, so you get replicated food. If you have a problem, take it up with someone else.”
“Who am I talking to?”
“Me, you imbecile.”
“This is Tarjala, isn’t it.”
“Who else would it be?”
Hartley sighed. “Can I have a word with Liana? Is she around?”
Imhala/Tarjala moaned. “I suppose. Hold on a sec.” Her eyes rolled back in her head and then suddenly she stared at Hartley, as if seeing her for the first time.
“Megan!” she squealed, and squeezed into the booth next to Hartley, wrapping an arm around her. “How ARE you, girlfriend?”
“It’s been a rough day.”
“Well tell Liana all about it. I’m here for you, sweetheart. And how is that cute fiancee of yours?”
“He’s fine…look…I need to ask your advice.”
“About how to deal with a really, really difficult person without resorting to violence…even though I kind of already did.”
“Hmm. I have difficult people living inside me, but generally I just give them a wide berth, you know what I mean?” Liana/Imhala chuckled nervously. “Can I get you something? A sandwich? Some soup?”
“No…nooooooo…” Hartley said. “Don’t be silly. Let’s just talk.” Those who frequented Space Tastes new better than to let Imhala cook when she was Liana.
“Okay, then. Well, tell me about this friend of yours…”
“She’s not my friend. She’s more of an…adversary.”
“And you have to find a way to defeat her.”
“I just don’t want to deal with her.”
“Hmm. That is a problem. Why don’t you just blow her out an airlock? Or…” Liana/Imhala’s eyes rolled backward in her head. “Why don’t I blow YOU out an airlock!” Apparently, Tarjala was back again.
“Well, that’s that,” Hartley sighed, standing up. “I’ll grab something at Mirk’s.” She walked toward the door to Space Tastes and came face to chest with Lt. Unlathi, Assistant Security Chief.
“Lieutenant…” Hartley said slowly. “Um…good to see you. My, you’re looking dark purple today.”
Unlathi said nothing, merely wrapped a tentacle around Hartley and slung her over their massive shoulder.
“What…what are you doing?”
“Brig,” it said simply.
“DAMN YOU, VANSEN!” she cried so loud it echoed throughout Ship’s Shoppes.
“What a nice little town,” Browning said as she held Richards’s hand, and had Plato clinging to her leg, as the trio walked with Weyoun and the Jem’Hadar into the little shantytown of modular living accommodations and buildings that made up the central village of Hadaria. Gaff’igan explained that there were a few more smaller settlements to the south and east, but Hadaria was by far the most developed section of “kinder, gentler” Jem’Hadar.
The whole idea still greatly confused Chris Richards.
“Yes, it is a lovely town,” Weyoun said. “You all did a wonderful job cleaning up the debris from the last Sumbission attack.”
“One of our artisans is creating a monument out of the debris.”
“Fascinating,” Weyoun tittered.
“I have a question,” Browning said, studying the modular buildings they passed by. “What exactly did the Dominion do to…um…you know…”
“Make us nicer?” offered Gaff’igan.
He exchanged a somewhat nervous glance with Weyoun, then looked at Richards. “We’re really not supposed to talk about it, but let’s just say it involves genetic manipulation.”
“Lovely,” Browning mumbled.
“The Dominion found themselves in quite a bind when the war with the Federation ended,” Weyoun broke in. “The Jem’Hadar are warriors, and when we found ourselves with no war to fight…they began getting antsy.”
“Many defected to follow the rogue founder,” Gaff’igan said solemnly.
“The who?” asked Richards.
“Jelo,” said Weyoun in a low, grave voice.
“Oh, right,” said Browning. “Him.”
“Many, many defected,” Bana’naram said in low tones.
“Now, then, Bana’naram, no need to bother our friends from the Alpha Quadrant with petty details,” Weyoun said, chuckling nervously. “Why don’t you and Bel’bivdevo go ahead and show Commander Richards the module where your tools are located so he can go ahead and begin repairing the runabout’s comm system?”
“Right this way,” Gaff’igan said, inclining his head toward a module just down the dirt road.
“Banan’aram,” Browning said, “why don’t YOU go ahead and show us where your food is located!”
“I would be pleased to create my special casserole for you,” Banan’aram told Browning in a stern, basso voice. “It is spiced well, as it should be. The White is, of course, optional.”
“I can’t wait to try it!” Browning said, trotting off with Plato and Weyoun tagging behind.
“I knew this day would come, Commander,” Lt. Commander Tilleran sighed, leaning against the large, wide, forcefielded frame that encased Lt. Commander Hartley in the Explorer’s brig. “I just hope you get conjugal visits.”
“Very funny,” Hartley muttered, curled up on the bench opposite Tilleran, staring at the ceiling of her cell. “I don’t, by the way.”
“Shame.” Tilleran glanced back at the security desk where Ensign Keefler watched her with a placid, bored look on his face. “So can you explain to me why you’re here? I only heard a little bit from J’hana.”
Hartley hugged her knees to her chest and stared out over them at Tilleran. “Because I ‘attacked’ Commander Vansen.”
“That must have been a sight.”
“Oh, I just shoved her against a bulkhead. She was trying to tell me how to run my engine room!”
“I can see that as a reason to attack someone.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Hartley muttered. “I’m missing a crucial overhaul of the engine room because Vansen has it out for me.”
“That is a problem.” Tilleran gazed back over to Keefler. “Ensign… please excuse the Commander and I. We have some…ship’s business to discuss.”
“Commander Vansen has ordered that I not leave the prisoner’s side, Ma’am,” Keefler said, averting his eyes from Tilleran.
“Well I am under the distinct impression that you would rather be at that private ‘music lesson’ you had planned with Lieutenant Madera.”
Keefler groaned. “Commander, are you reading my mind?”
Tilleran raised an eyebrow. “Maybe yes, maybe definitely.”
“Sir, ma’am…that is, I uh…”
“Dismissed, Ensign,” Tilleran said sharply. “Go fraternize with another crewmember. THAT is an order.”
“Yes, MA’AM!” Keefler stood, saluted swiftly, and darted out the door.
“You’re good,” Hartley said, approaching the forcefield. “Now lower this thing and let me out of here.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Tilleran said, holding up her hands. “I didn’t do that so I could break you out of here. I just did it so we could talk in private. As much as I would like to help you, I can’t. I’ve been working safely outside Vansen’s sensor range and I want to keep it that way. The last thing I want to do is call down her thunder.”
“Why is everyone so afraid of that woman?” Hartley mumbled.
Tilleran shrugged. “It’s not fear so much as desire not to have to deal with her. Her thoughts make my brain hurt. She’s brusque, brash, unkind, blunt and rude, and not in the endearing, self-loathing way Commander Conway was.”
“Yes,” Hartley saidd thoughtfully. “She’s much more self-confident and competent.”
“And that’s what makes her such a threat.” Tilleran shook her head. “I don’t know what to do about her. Captain Baxter doesn’t seem to see it as an issue. Richards is gone. You’re going to have to deal with this one on your own.”
“And how do you propose I do that?”
“You’re the engineer. You’re supposed to know every inch of this ship. You’ve got a temporarily-distracted jailer. You figure it out.”
With that, Tilleran waltzed out of the brig, leaving Hartley wondering just how good of an escape artist she was.
“That casserole was fabulous!” Browning exclaimed, sitting back from the table in the dining module and patting her stomach.
“Yummy…tastes like chicken!” Plato exclaimed from his seat next to Browning.
“It is the meat of a six-legged bolok beast we slaughtered,” Banan’aram said, looming over Browning, Plato, and Weyoun sporting an apron that read “Cookin’ With Ketracel” and a white chef’s hat. “They live throughout the forests of this world. Their blood is acidic and toxic, but once we treat the meat with the proper neutralizing agents, it makes for a delicious casserole.”
“If I had the ability to taste, I am sure I would agree,” Weyoun said, pushing his partially-finished plate away.
“Are you going to eat the rest of that?” Browning asked, chewing the last morsel of casserole from her own plate.
“You are welcomed to it, Doct–” Weyoun began, but Browning had already snatched his plate and was eating from it.
At that time, Richards walked up, flanked by Gaff’igan and Bel’bivdevo.
Both Jem’Hadars’ arms were laden with tubing, probes, lengths of optical cables and pointed objects Browning was not familiar with.
“I tried to carry some of it, but they wouldn’t let me,” Richards explained.
“Helping people is the ultimate victory,” Bel’bivdevo bellowed.
“They’ve been talking like that this whole time,” muttered Richards.
“Please, allow me to make you a casserole, or some soup,” said Banan’aram. “Anything less would be unacceptable.”
“Well, okay,” Richards said.
Weyoun wiped his mouth gingerly and stood. “Mister Richards, what is your repair status?”
“Not promising.” Richards glanced in the direction of Gaff’igan and Bel’bivdevo. “This equipment is vastly different from what the Federation uses. I have no idea if I can use any of it to jury-rig the Chicamacomico’s comm system.”
“We are at your disposal,” Gaff’igan said.
“Helping you in your task is my only hope for salvation,” said Bel’bivdevo.
“As you can see, the Jem’Hadar are quite accommodating,” Weyoun said.
“Yeah,” Richards said. “Okay. Come on, guys.”
Browning piled Weyoun’s plate, which she’d just finished off, on top of her previous plate. “Well, then. Why don’t we grab some dessert?”
“My, Ariel, you are a glutton for punishment.” J’hana stood on the quarterdeck of the Explorer bridge, scowling at Tilleran as she sat in the command chair, lazily eying the starscape on the viewscreen. “Your shift ended an hour ago.”
“Yes, but then I got a comm from Lieutenant Commander Vansen asking me to cover her shift,” Tilleran said.
“Shirking of duty? Doesn’t sound like Vansen,” J’hana mused.
“I don’t mind it. We’re in spacedock. Nothing’s going on anyway.”
“You are afraid of that woman,” J’hana surmised, leaning over the railing that surrounded the command area.
“Don’t be silly.” Tilleran folded her arms. In the few moments of silence, she heard a bleeping at tactical.
Lt. Unlathi looked down at their panel and then just loomed there, their tentacles flailing.
“Oh, stop being so melodramatic, you big sissy,” J’hana said, walking over to Unlathi’s panel. “Hmmm. It looks like there was an overload in a backup power generator just off the main brig.”
“Hmm,” Tilleran said, staring lazily at the ceiling.
“Do we know of anybody who’s in the brig right now?” J’hana asked Tilleran with a knowing smirk.
“Not that I can say.” Tilleran glanced at Unlathi, who was holding up their tentacle as if about to say something.
“Not that you can say, either, right Unlathi?” J’hana said sharply. “RIGHT, Unlathi?”
Unlathi put down their tentacle and went back to monitoring their station. J’hana walked around to the command area and sat down next to Tilleran, in Richards’ normal chair to her right.
“Well, you may be passive-aggressive, but at least ‘aggressive’ is in there somewhere,” J’hana said.
Tilleran smiled. “Thanks. Now why don’t you walk over to the replicator and get us some lunch?”
“You are a born leader,” J’hana said, and strode over to the bridge replicator.
Lt. Commander Hartley elbowed her way through the Jefferies tube above the brig. It wasn’t easy ripping off the ceiling covering and shorting out the field generator that kept her contained. All she could say was thank the Directors she was wearing hair pins that day.
As she shimmied through the conduit, going over the twists and turns of the tubes that would take her all the way down to Engineering, Hartley luxuriated in the thoughts of how she would make Vansen regret what she’d done.
Someone had to stop Vansen from throwing her weight around. The Explorer belonged to Hartley. And no one…no one…trifled with it on her watch.
About this time her head slammed into the ceiling of the Jefferies tube and Hartley momentarily forgot what she was so mad about.
Richards hummed a little tune as he worked under the foreward console of the Chicamacomico, studying the fused connections that led from the primary ODN line to the long-range communications array. He jabbed the makeshift phase modulator he’d created from Jem’Hadar parts into the socket where the junction met the ODN shunt, then shrieked when a jolt of electricity surged through him.
“Are you all right?” Gaff’igan asked with concern as Richards shuddered underneath the console. He crawled out and turned to look at Gaff’igan, who stared at him from the pilot’s chair with a look of rapt concern. It was disconcerting.
“I’ll live,” he said. “But we’re no closer to getting a distress call out.”
“Unfortunate,” Gaff’igan said. “I wish there was more I could do, but I am afraid my species was not bred to be smart.”
“Yeah, just loyal.”
“And not that anymore, really.”
Richards leaned up to grab some isolitic wiring out of his hastily thrown together Jem’Hadar “tool box.”
“And why do you say that?”
“The Founders reverse-engineered us to be less loyal. So we’d leave them alone, I think.”
“I’m sure they want you to be your own people now that they don’t need you to fight wars all the time.”
“Which would you prefer, Commander…to serve in heaven or to lead in hell?”
“Um….the first one, I guess.”
“Now you know our pain.” Gaff’igan looked around. “No battles to fight. Sometimes I think this is not preferable to our original existence. Did you know I killed an entire crew of a Federation starship with my bare hands? That was many, many years ago. Nearly four years, just days after I’d reached maturity.”
Richards backed under his console as Gaff’igan said that. “Feeling nostalgic, eh? Well, they certainly sound like they were good times.”
“I bathed in the blood of my enemies, yes.”
“Well, look at the time!” Richards snapped. “Why don’t you go see how Bel’bivdevo is doing with the signal amplifier.”
“As you wish,” Gaff’igan said, ducking out of the cockpit, leaving Richards feeling more than just a little leery.
That’s when a meteor slammed down in front of the Chicamacomico’s windows, throwing Richards skidding along the deck, slamming against the bulkhead in back of the cockpit. He could feel the bow of the runabout rise up in the air as the blast wave from the explosion hit. He could feel the heat of the fire outside as the forest burst into flames. He slammed against the ceiling of the runabout as it flipped end over end and landed upside down against a felled tree.
Groggily, he looked up to see Gaff’igan climb into the cockpit. “Mister Richards, are you all right?”
“NO!” snapped Richards. “What the hell was that??”
“A message from the Submission, no doubt.”
“Why don’t they just destroy us?”
“Well, they’re not an entirely malevolent bunch. They just want to prove a point.”
“Which is what?”
“They don’t like us.”
“I got it.” Richards stared up into the darkening, smokey sky. “You hear me? I GOT IT!”
“I don’t belive they can hear you, Commander.”
“Careful, careful. You’ve almost got it. Just ever so lightly lift it by the edge…there you go…”
Ensign Lexxin stared over Ensign Ryan Stuart’s shoulder as he deftly worked at the main systems table down in engineering.
Vansen crept up behind them, eager to see what they were working on. Her eyes bugged out when she saw what was on the table.
Stuart’s head whipped around so fast he fell out of his chair. Lexxin, a four-armed Taloran, jumped up in the air, waving all four arms spastically.
“Don’t sneak up on us like that Commander Hart–!” Stuart grunted from the floor. “Vansen?”
Vansen did not help Stuart up. Hands on hips, she surveyed engineering. Conduit and tubing were still everywhere. Panels lay splayed open, and they were still short a warp core.
“Ensign, would you care to explain to me why working on a football is your top priority when this engine room is in shambles, and still missing a warp core?”
“It’s the captain’s football,” Stuart said quickly.
“It’s the captain’s football,” Vansen repeated. She folded her arms. “How very…Explorer.”
“Ma’am?” asked Lexxin.
“We were just re-doing the stitching. This is a very delicate piece of history. I hear it was used in the 2094 Super Bowl. Cowboys versus Radiationheads, in the Taco Bell Aquariumdome.”
“Hmm. Can I see?”
Stuart nervously handed Vansen the football.
“Hmm. Terrific handiwork.” Then Vansen took the ball, cocked back and heaved it across engineering into the warp core compartment. “That’s what I think of your stupid ball! You two have duties to attend to, and whatever you may be used to under Lieutenant Commander Hartley, you can forget it in favor of a new directive. GET YOUR JOB DONE!”
“Yes, yes, sir!” Stuart and Lexxin said, dashing across engineering, ordering other crewmembers to pitch in as they shoved panels back together and re-worked loose tubing.
Vansen strolled over to the warp core compartment. “How long until we can get the core back in?”
“It’s ready to go,” Stuart said. “We just have to seal off the compartment and open the bay doors.”
“Simple enough,” Vansen mused. “Let’s make that a priority. The paneling and conduits can wait. I want to get that core back in here.”
“But Commander Hartley wanted us to secure the primary EPS node fir–”
“I do not care what Commander Hartley wanted,” Vansen said in slow, measured tones. “I want you to prepare to bring the warp core back in so we can have this ship prepared to depart on schedule. Do you understand?”
“Sure,” Stuart said. “Lexxin, Milanovich. Over here. We have to open up the warp core access hatch and pull the core in through the atmospheric field.”
Vansen peered down the long expanse of decks that lead from main engineering, right down to the hole at the bottom of the ship through which the warp core would be installed. The core traveled the length of more than a dozen decks and would have to be slowly brought up into its slot by the use of a mini-tractor set up at the top of the shaft, in the antimatter pod room.
A simple task she’d seen done many times in her seven-year Starfleet career.
As Vansen stood at the railing surrounding the warp core shaft, supervising the core being maneuvered up through the hole at the bottom of the ship, a Jefferies tube hatch was kicked open and a very angry chief engineer crawled out.
“Here’s Megan!” Hartley cried, stomping over to the warp core chamber.
Vansen whirled, truly shocked at seeing Hartley. “Commander!”
Hartley glanced at her personnel, who were gathered around the railing, calling down to the crew at the base of the warp core shaft who were quickly trying to maneuver the core up through the transparent atmospheric force shield.
“Everyone but Vansen…OUT OF HERE!” she called, sending her people scrambling out of main engineering.
“Nobody move,” Vansen replied cooly. Then she glanced around to find the compartment empty. “Touche, Commander Hartley.”
“I see my leadership abilities aren’t so bad after all.”
“You would be surprised what your people can do when they are allowed to work to their strengths. When every little detail isn’t micromanaged.”
“They get their jobs done fine under me. I’ve never heard a complaint.”
“I’m sure.” Vansen looked at Hartley, as if sizing her up. “How did you break out of the brig?”
“I’m not going to tell you. Suffice it to say, I’m this ship’s Chief Engineer. I know her better than her designers.”
“Perhaps,” Vansen said. “But you don’t know people. You don’t know how to handle the people that work under you…or above you.” She folded her arms. “I can have you before a court martial for attacking me. As a matter of fact, when we get back to the Alpha Quadrant, after this mission, that’s exactly what I intend to do.”
Hartley pushed up her shirtsleeves, stepping toward Vansen. “IF you make it back, you domineering, overbearing, nosey, foul, retchid…BITCH!”
“Really, Commander. Do you want me to add subordination to the list of charges against you?”
“Why don’t you add this?” Hartley cocked back to swing a fist at Vansen, but before she could Vansen flipped over the warp core railing and fell downward, as if dragged by some unseen force. As Hartley tried to call out her name, she quickly figured out she couldn’t in the thinning air. A suction pulled on her, and the fact she was gripping the warp core railing was the only thing keeping her from sharing in Vansen’s fate.
The atmospheric field had failed. The hole at the bottom of the ship had been vented to vacuum. And Vansen was getting dragged out into space.
Hartley sighed, thinking to herself how ironic and unfair this was about to be, and she released her deathgrip on the warp core railing and dove after Vansen.
The suction of air rushing out of the six levels from Engineering to the bottom of the ship was enough to pull Hartley down to meet Vansen. She flew by each deck, watching panicked officers grip whatever handholds they could. She felt as if the air was being sucked out of her chest.
And she saw Vansen, gripping a handhold on the side of the warp core, which had been pulled only about two meters worth into the ship. Vansen’s grip was loosening, and just as her hand broke free of the warp core, Hartley’s hand reached out and grabbed it. Hartley grinned at the panicked look on Vansen’s face as the engineer hooked her foot around a railing and held Vansen’s hand for dear life.
Sometimes, everything just worked out in the end.
“…third attack in months…”
“…really not fair…”
“…pick on someone else for a change…”
“…tried my egg salad?”
“I think even I can safely say that egg salad is the last thing on our minds,” Janice Browning said, standing at the front of a small auditorium filled with eighty-eight Jem’Hadar…the entire population of Jem’Hada.
“Everyone, please calm down,” Gaff’igan said, holding up his hands. “I know this latest attack has left you all uneasy.”
“Uneasy,” Richards muttered, as Browning sat next to him, studying his bruised elbow. His uniform was scorched. “They weren’t tossed around in a flailing runabout.”
“I was,” Bel’bivdevo said meekly.
“As I said, calm down,” Gaff’igan said, glancing around at the Starfleet visitors that shared the stage with him.
“I’m just wondering why the Submission hasn’t overrun us with troops already. What’s stopping them from beaming down?” pondered Richards.
“Maybe you took out their transporters when you attacked them, Christopher,” Browning offered.
“That’s a possibility,” Richards said, rubbing his chin.
“I think there is a painfully obvious solution to our problem,” Gaff’igan broke in.
“I am pleased you have come up with one,” Weyoun said.
“The Founders have sent us a message.” Gaff’igan walked over to Plato and took him by the hand, leading him out to the front of the stage. “They have sent an envoy, half-Founder, half-humanoid, along with a crew from the Federation, to help us defeat those who would try to destroy us.”
“Now, wait just one…” Browning began.
“The Federation will save us…”
“…let us hear it from the Founder…”
“…but he is only a child…”
“…can still lead us into a glorious battle…”
“…but I have pottery drying in the barn!”
“My little boy is not going to help any of you wage war!” Browning said resolutely, hurrying to Plato’s side and pulling him back to sit with her.
“That would be fun!” Plato squealed, and Browning put a gentle hand over his mouth.
“With all due respect, this is your problem, not ours,” said Richards.
“Actually, it sort of is your problem too,” Gaff’igan said. “If you ever want to leave this place, you’ll have to find a way to get past the Submission.”
“Christopher?” Browning said quickly.
“Right,” Richards replied, standing quickly. “I’ll get back to the Chicamacomico. Maybe I can find a way to blow them up while they’re in orbit.”
“Long live the Federation Richards. He will save us from the Submission!” the crowd chanted as Richards limped offstage and out of the auditorium.
“I suppose you two know why you’re here.” Captain Baxter stared across his desk at Vansen and Hartley…who both, by their expressions, looked like they could stare a hole right through his forehead.
“Yes,” Vansen said, thinking “to fire Hartley for being incompetent.”
“Yes,” Hartley said, thinking “to fire Vansen for being a bitch.”
“I’m glad we are in agreement,” Baxter said, standing, circling to the front of his desk, sitting down on it, between Hartley and Vansen’s chairs. “We’re here because one of you two lost my football.”
“Oh,” Hartley said.
“What?” Vansen demanded.
“Apparently, it was sucked out into space when the atmospheric field over the warp core port failed.”
“Apparently, SOMEONE didn’t reconnect the proper power nodes before opening up the warp core compartment!” seethed Hartley.
“Maybe if you’d given your people the proper instructions they’d have been able to do it right without you!” Vansen snapped back.
“SILENCE!” growled Baxter. He turned to grab a padd off his desk. He handed it to Hartley. “This is sensor footage of the ball being sucked out into space. As you can see, it hurtled out of the bottom of our ship, flew right between a pair of Outpost 417’s subspace antennae, and sailed out into open space…”
“Right between the antennae,” Hartley said weakly. “That’s three points, right?”
Baxter stared at Hartley. “I’m not laughing.”
“Sir, I hardly think this is about a football,” Vansen said.
“The part I’m concerned with IS,” Baxter said. He stood. “Now then… Tactical reports that we lost contact with the Chicamacomico somewhere in the Carsus system, and I am going to take the Escort and go investigate, since, obviously, the Explorer is in no shape to go anywhere anytime soon.” He walked toward the door. “While I’m gone, I want the two of you to take a shuttlepod out there and find my football.”
“But…” said Vansen.
“And when you’re done, I want Commander Hartley to finish the engine room repairs in half the time she estimated, and I want Commander Vansen to take command of the bridge and stay there, without poking into anyone else’s businesss. Understood? Good. Bye.”
Hartley and Vansen sat in pregnant silence in Baxter’s readyroom.
“Asshole,” Hartley muttered, and stood up.
“Yes,” agreed Vansen, standing. She turned toward the door to the bridge and walked out. “Thanks,” she tossed over her shoulder, not bothering to throw in the “for saving my life” part.
“That may just be the sweetest thing anybody’s ever said to me,” Hartley muttered, then headed out of the readyroom.
The fact that the Chicamacomico was laying on its back did nothing to help Richards’ predicament.
The good news was that he’d gotten the sensors up and running. The bad news was that, even if he was able to target the Submission warship passing overhead, he’d have to fire a torpedo out from underneath (the former top of) the Chicamacomico, and then manually guide it up through Jem’Hada’s atmosphere and slam it into the Submission vessel.
All this without letting them maneuver out of the way. He figured he had a better shot of knocking a dog off a fence with a tiny spitball. But that was neither here nor there.
Richards slapped the casing closed on his one and only perfected atmospheric photon torpedo.
He’d gutted some unnecessary components to lighten it up, and added the thrusters from another torpedo to give it extra push. Now to find a target.
“That is a formidable weapon,” observed Bel’bivdevo as Richards slid the torpedo into its track and shut the access port into the weapons pod.
He climbed back into the upside down rear compartment and climbed along the ceiling toward the cockpit.
“I hope it does the job. We’re going to have to make do with one. I don’t have the time or components to prepare another one.”
“Do you think your plan will work?”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Richards flopped down on his back to get a right-side-up view of the targeting controls. He’d have to be right-on with his targeting if this was to work. Bel’bivdevo loomed over him, studying him with great interest. “Aren’t you going to feel guilty if you kill any of them?”
“It’ll pass, if it gets us off this planet.”
“You are quite brave.”
“I can’t believe I’m talking to a Jem’Hadar.”
“Things change. People change. You can too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Shirk your violent ways. Join us in peace.” Bel’bivdevo leaned closer to Richards. “I have acted as if I am still clinging to a shred of my former Jem’Hadar ways. I assure you, though, I am not. A large number of my colleagues and I have taken a great amount of pleasure in peaceful existence. I think, if you try it, you may get to like it as well.”
“Get the hell out of here.”
“As you wish.” Bel’bivdevo ducked out of the cockpit, leaving Richards with the belief this whole planet could use some serious counseling.
“You look grim, Captain,” Lt. Commander J’hana observed from beside Baxter as she operated the Escort’s small tactical console.
Baxter sat in the command chair, staring at the onrushing stars, fingers steepled. “I am.”
“Don’t worry, sir. Chris and Janice will be fine.”
“I’m thinking about my football.”
J’hana nodded. “I see. Well, the prognosis on that may not be quite so good.”
Baxter swiveled in his command chair to face J’hana. “Did I ask you, Commander?”
“As you were!” Baxter swiveled back to face the viewscreen and J’hana resolved not to talk to him anymore during the flight.
Richards was just making the final modifications as his comm screen flared to life with the image of the Karrema, Hanok.
“Mister Richards. I hope I didn’t catch you at a bad time.”
“Not at all,” grunted Richards. “I was just repairing my runabout. You know the one you knocked around earlier today when you blew up a whole forest?”
“Yes, we’re quite sorry about that. But we had to send you a message.”
“You’re sending me a message right now,” Richards said. “Why couldn’t you have tried this method before?”
“Because this method is not effective with the Jem’Hadar. They know only violence and destruction.”
“Not these Jem’Hadar. They’re peaceful. Haven’t you even tried talking to them?”
“Didn’t you think it a bit odd that they did nothing to resist you blowing up their buildings and stealing their ship?”
“We just figured we’d taken them by surprise.”
“I think you’re the one that’s about to be taken by surprise, Mister Hanok. These Jem’Hadar are good guys. It’s a Dominion experiment.” As Richards said this, he aligned the targeting scanners on the Chicamacomico’s torpedo launching system.
“They still must leave. This planet is in our space.”
“Since when? You never said anything about that!”
“Since right now! We’ve decided to claim this space in the name of the Submission. Submit to us!”
“This is ridiculous,” Richards moaned. He stabbed the firing control. A torpedo ripped out from under the Chicamacomico, blazing a red trail through the obliterated Jem’Hada forest. Thanks to the Submission, it had a clear route out, since all the trees were blown up.
Richards carefully guided the torpedo up on a steep climb, bringing it gently around so as to creep up on the Submission vessel from behind.
He maintained eye contact with Hanok. “Mister Hanok, I’m sure we can reach some kind of deal.”
“The deal is, you hand us the Jem’Hadar and the Vorta, and the half- changeling boy, and we’ll return you to your ship.”
Richards expertly steered the torpedo around…still not close enough. He needed to make smalltalk. “Say, Hannok,” he said. “Why can’t you just beam down a bunch of troops to take over the village and capture the Jem’Hadar?”
“Because you blew up our transporters in your attack!” Hanok muttered.
“Janice was right,” Richards said absently.
“Listen, you worm! There is no room for negotiation here…do you understand me, Commander? SUBMIT TO US!”
Richards scowled at Hanok as he maneuvered the torpedo right at the Jem’Hadar warship’s rear section. “No. SUBMIT TO THIS!”
Hanok suddenly looked shocked at something off-screen. “A what? Full shields, lock weapons! Stop it before it–”
Sparks erupted all around Hanok and the comm signal went dead.
Richards rubbed his hands together. “Victory is life.”
“Stupid football,” Hartley muttered, tossing Baxter’s ball at an ensign as she and Vansen stepped out of the shuttle bay. “There, Lexxin. Go put it in Baxter’s readyroom where it belongs. Maybe that will stay my court martial.”
“I won’t be putting you in for court martial,” Vansen said, as she and Hartley walked down the corridor toward the turbolift.
“And just why not?” Hartley asked as the two walked toward a turbolift.
“You…prevented me from dying.”
“I believe ‘saving your life’ is the way I’d describe it.”
“Whatever you say. I still…owe you something.”
“So now you’ll go easy on me, then?”
“I never said that. But it does give you a ‘get out of jail free’ token.”
“If you don’t stay out of my engine room, I may need another token. Maybe even two.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Vansen stepped into the opening turbolift, leaving Hartley in the corridor. “For now, consider yourself off the hook. Bridge.”
Hartley sighed as the turbolift doors closed. “What a relief,” she said sarcastically, even though she kind of meant it.
Stardate 55180.2. We’ve found the Chicamacomico, Commander Richards, and a bunch of prisoners from something called “The Submission.” Wierder yet, the planet everybody crashed on seems to be populated by nice Jem’Hadar.
“So the Jem’Hadar are nice,” Baxter said, standing in the courtyard in Hadaria City.
“These Jem’Hadar are, anyway,” said Browning, holding Plato on her hip. The little guy was getting a little too heavy to hold all the time, but she still carried him around in spite of that.
“And the other Gamma Quadrant races that used to be subservient to the Dominion…they’re bad guys…”
“Not really bad, they just want to get back at the Dominion for all that bullying,” said Richards.
“It’s quite sad, really. I have spoken with the leaders of the Dominion council,” Weyoun said. “And they assure me a transport is being dispatched to fetch these…Submission people…and get them into a good counseling program.”
“Good thing most of them survived crashing into your planet,” Richards observed. “They really make Jem’Hadar ships tough.”
“I guess I understand,” Baxter said.
“These Jem’Hadar are weaklings,” J’hana said, walking up to stand next to Richards and Browning. “But I must admit, they do cook a decent meal.”
“I’ll say,” said Browning.
Gaff’igan walked up behind J’hana, followed by Banan’aram. “Commander, you left these in my module.” What Gaff’igan handed J’hana was given to her so quickly Baxter barely saw it, but he did see it, and winced to see that it was panties.
“Are we about ready to go,” Richards said wearily.
“Yes, I think we’ve done enough around here,” Baxter said, glaring at J’hana. “It’s good to hear Dominion reinforcements are on their way. It sounds like this place could use some remodeling.”
“The other Jem’Hadar are going to make fun of us,” Banan’aram said sadly.
“You tell them they’ll have to answer to me if they do,” Browning said firmly. “And they’ll also have to answer to Christopher. Right, hon?”
“I am sure that will intimidate them,” muttered Banan’aram.
“It’ll be okay, buddy man,” Plato said brightly, leaning off Browning’s hip to hug Banan’aram.
“He’s never called me buddy man,” Baxter muttered, slapping his combadge. “Baxter to Escort. Six to beam up.”
As the Escort sailed toward the Changeling homeworld with the Chicamacomico in tow, Richards sat in the mess hall eating a roast beef sandwich and studying the crew reports Commander Vansen had sent him via subspace.
“Anything interesting?” Browning asked from the doorway to the mess hall.
Richards looked over the report of Hartley getting thrown in the brig, the renovation of Engineering, Vansen’s nearly being sucked out of the ship, and Baxter’s football getting lost. “Nope. Same old stuff.”
Browning walked over to sit across from Richards. “You were terrific down there, Christopher. You managed to save us from that nasty Submission.”
“They were just a couple fancy engineering tricks,” Richards mumbled. “Nothing commandlike, if you look at it.”
“You took action and showed those Jem’Hadar that even peaceful folk can defend themselves. That’s very commandlike.” Browning reached out and took Richards’s hand.
“Whatever you say,” Richards said distantly. “Anyway, I’m glad to hear we’re still able to take Plato to the Changeling homeworld.”
“I’m sure he’ll enjoy it. He’s sleeping right now. The last couple days really tuckered him out.”
“You know…” Richards chuckled. “It’s kind of funny. I took off to come along with you and bond with Plato, and what do I end up doing? Tinkering with a runabout the whole time and trading barbs with an alien commander. The whole point of my trip has been lost.”
“Personally, I’m glad you came along. And I know Plato is too.” Browning sighed. “For Pete’s sake, Christopher, don’t get bent out of shape because you didn’t have enough time bonding with Plato. You’re not on a schedule here. Just relax and do what feels right.”
“What feels right is to get a nap before we reach the Changeling homeworld.”
“I’m with you on that one,” Browning said, and took Richards’s hand, following him out of the mess hall.
Captain Baxter sat in the Escort command chair, tapping the arms happily. He’d just heard Vansen’s report that the football had been saved and was at this moment sitting safely back in his readyroom.
And to think, on top of that, Richards, Browning, and Plato (and Weyoun) were safely aboard his ship. An all-around satisfying turn of events.
Baxter stood up. “Ensign Hildebrand,” he called to the officer at helm, “I think I’m going to turn in. Give me a call if you spot anything strange on sensors.” He walked back to the door that lead off the bridge. It opened before he got there, revealing Plato, holding a blue blanket and sucking his thumb. When he took the thumb out of his mouth, it was shaped like a hammer.
“Can’t sleep,” Plato muttered.
Baxter whisked Plato up and onto his hip and took him out into the corridor. “How did you get out of your cabin, buddy?”
“Punched some buttons on the door.”
“Smart little guy. So you want Uncle Andy to read you a story or something?”
Plato shook his head. “No, no.”
“You don’t want me to read you a story?”
“No. I DO want a story. But I want Uncle Chris to tell it to me.”
“Yeah, Uncle Andy. Get Uncle Chris. I want him to tell me bout the planet we were on again.”
Baxter grinded his teeth. “Sure thing, kid. No problem.”
Counselor Peterman beams down with an away team to the mysterious world of Pelomius Five, where the residents all seem to be stuck living out their artistic dreams, controlled by some unseen entity. When the away team goes into a similar trance, Peterman will have to figure out how to snap them out of it on her own, and figure out who’s pulling the strings. When “All the World’s a Stage,” who the heck is the director? And no, it’s not THAT kind of director!